The Dhammapada, verse two: Good begets good

This second verse makes pair with the first. In fact, all the verses in the first section of the Dhammapada are paired, which is where the section gets its name from — the Yamaka Vagga, or Pair Chapter.

Manopubbaṅgama dhammā

Manoseṭṭhā manomayā

Manasā ce pasannena

Bhāsati vā karoti vā

Tato naṁ sukhamanveti

chāyā’va anapāyini.

“Mind is the forerunner of (all good) states. Mind is chief; mind-made are they. If one speaks or acts with pure mind, because of that, happiness follows one, even as one’s shadow that never leaves.”

Just as an impure mind precedes all bad behavior, a pure mind precedes all good behavior, which leads to happiness. Even from a materialistic point of view, this is obviously true; as my voice teacher said once, “I try to do the right thing so that I like the person I see in the mirror.” Goodness is definitely its own reward, and there’s nothing better than the contentment that comes from knowing you’ve done the right thing.

I like the simile of the shadow. Unlike the heavy cart pulled by the ox, your shadow is never a burden. It’s weightless, and it’s with you all the time. In the same way, the good that you’ve done is always with you without weighing you down.

Just like negative thoughts have a negative effect on the world around you, positive thoughts can be a powerful force for positive change. I think my girlfriend’s story (which I shared in the previous post) illustrates this nicely, but there are plenty of other examples, like the fact that placebos work on patients who believe they’re being treated, the impact that a positive outlook has on the prognoses of the very ill, and even the endorphins released by the brain when we make ourselves smile.

Here’s Nārada Thera’s summary of the story associated with this verse:

“Maṭṭakuṇḍali, the only son of a stingy millionaire, was suffering from jaundice and was on the verge of death because his father would not consult a physician lest some part of his money should have to be spent. The Buddha, perceiving with His Divine Eye the sad plight of the dying boy, appeared before him. Seeing the Buddha, he was pleased, and dying with a pure heart, full of the faith in the Buddha, was born in a heavenly state.”

It’s because his mind was pure at the moment of his passing that Maṭṭakuṇḍali was reborn on a celestial plane, which reflects the essential meaning of the verse well. However, I’m more interested in what this story says about the importance and the purpose of devotion in Theravada Buddhism.

For me, the devotional aspect of traditional Buddhist practice was the most difficult part in the beginning. People prostrate themselves before images of the Buddha, pay homage to Him by reciting his numerous qualities and characteristics, and make offerings of flowers, candlelight, incense, and even food. Because of my American background, this all feels a lot like idol worship.

It still feels strange to even bow before my wall hanging of the Buddha, and I have to constantly remind myself that this is a gesture of respect, rather than one of worship. Now though, with the help of texts like this one, I think I’m finally starting to understand the real point of Buddhist devotion. The Buddha isn’t here anymore, so He doesn’t need worship or offerings. Devotion for us isn’t a means of serving a higher power; the practice of humility and the inspiration that comes from contemplating the One who pointed out the Way for us serve to purify the mind. Devotion isn’t about doing something that affects the world outside, but doing something that affects the world inside.

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